Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.  Photo © Hervé All

Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.
Photo © Hervé All

Barbican Theatre, London, UK; February 18, 2014    

Charlotte Kasner    

There was a debate in the early decades of the 20th century about whether symphonic music was a suitable accompaniment to dance, with a large groundswell of opinion that it was not, and while it might be fine for Tchaikovsky to write ballets, the feeling was ‘please don’t dance to “Manfred”.’ Nowadays, although the quality of the performance varies hugely, no one makes much of a fuss about it and it could be thought that the question had been settled.

However, Yaron Lifschitz’s “Opus” re-ignites the argument in a way that is like slashing at a wound with a blunt machete. He chooses to use Shostakovich’s string quartets, some of the most profound music, not just of the last century but perhaps ever written. It is also some of the most gut-wrenchingly personal music ever composed, littered throughout as it is with his musical DSCH signature. There can be no doubt that it was the culmination of decades of musical and political expression. It would take an extremely sensitive and subtle choreographer to do justice this music and many might question the wisdom of attempting it. What it most definitely is not, is a suitable accompaniment to acrobatics, however skilful.

Everything jars, from the (late) opening, glittering curtain where the over-amplified chamber music fights to fill the auditorium, to the audience, by turns tittering, guffawing and applauding at every unsuitable moment.

Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.  Photo © Hervé All

Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.
Photo © Hervé All

Circus has done much to re-invent itself from the fading children’s entertainment that it had largely become in Britain where almost everyone is a coulrophobe from birth and where acrobats ceased to be common entertainment with the demise of variety. Admittedly, much of the recent popularity of circus performances has been dependent on the shock-factor such as juggling with chainsaws or the unlikely, vide an acrobatic “Swan Lake” where a performer pirouettes on top of her partner’s head.

Circa can then cash in on a certain aura of chic that surrounds the art and there were plenty of roars and whoops from the audience following their undoubted display of strength and balance. Nothing can detract though from the unedifying spectacle of girls hula hooping with LED-lit hoops to a Shostakovich string quartet.

Towers of people clamber up and over each other and bodies are literally swung and flung across the stage between performers. No doubt some of the appeal is the possibility that it all might go horribly wrong as it tragically and fatally did on a recent occasion and that can in no way set up a suitable frame of mind to appreciate the depths and expression in the music. The Shostakovich is not relentless; pools of light and shade enable breath to be caught, the mind to quieten. On almost every instance where this occurred musically, a large, spectacular movement prompted the audience to laugh, gasp and applaud.There are moments where it almost works, such as two trapeze acts that contort in the air as if they are being tortured, although it is impossible ever to rid oneself of the tension inherent in watching someone balance on a thin swing several feet above the (hard) stage. Clearly, the majority of the audience who enjoyed it had disregarded the music and surrendered themselves to the spectacle.

Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.

Circa and the Debussy String Quartet in ‘Opus’.

Both photos © Hervé All

Both photos © Hervé All

A note in the programme from the Debussy String Quartet sets the tone: “…who is doing what? Nobody knows. What about the musical instruments? Will they be turned into props for the acrobats? And the musicians, will they bend over backwards to play their instruments?” In actuality, the musicians wander around once or twice but mostly stand and play except for the one instance where the cellist’s elbow is supported by an acrobat as he walks to the front of the stage.

In another setting, this would be a very entertaining evening from Circa and the Debussy Quartet who played with every sign of competency and no lack of energy, but this ill-conceived musical/circus fusion is as hideous as the Chinese Smorgasbord to which I was once invited.